(Inspired by a visit to The Gardens of Petersonville)
Know how. Have done. Don’t much any more. Oh, I do have what my friend Wil calls an edible landscape with herbs, basil and nasturtiums in pots, raspberries, and I did reset my rhubarb two years ago (it’ll be ready to harvest next year—you have to wait three years for some reason). But rows or patches full of tomatoes, beans, zucchini, and winter squash? Nope.
There are several reasons for this, the two main ones being my CSA grower Dan Gibbs and a lack of space leading to strict priorities. Dan grows such great produce that eating a big mixed salad from his farm in summer makes me think the angels should be jealous, limited as they are to manna, ambrosia, and other such insubstantial fare. He has a lot of space and he’s local and he’s a professional. My family believes in strengthening the local economy, especially family farms, so we’re happy to subscribe. He earns a living and our summer is full of one delicious fresh-vegetable-based meal after another.
The fresh produce problem taken care of, I’ve felt free to garden my small backyard according to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, to garden with a focus on helping preserve biodiversity. Though my garden is full of flowers, it is not an ornamental garden, with plants chosen strictly for aesthetics. I consider my yard a working landscape, and nearly every plant in it earns its keep one way or another. I won’t put in a plant simply because it’s pretty. My criteria are thus: Is it native to my region? Is it suitable to my soil, light, water conditions? What are its "faunal associations" (what pollinators, other insects and birds depend upon it, pollinate it, eat the fruits)? Is it a good companion to my other plants? I also put in certain native plants to see how they do, so I can recommend them to others. Last year it was black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, and what a pleasure to see the birds eat the berries in September! This year I hope to get some of the berries for myself.
There are some exceptions to the natives-only rule. One is that I’m not going to rip out well-behaved exotics (e.g. snowdrops, scilla, daffodils, lilacs, peonies, butterfly bush and clematis) that I put in as a beginning gardener. Another is using perennial herbs such as oregano and mint, which the bees like as well as I. Since one of my aims is to preserve soil health--which means don’t till or dig if possible--when I succumb to the lure of a lantana or geranium, well, that’s what containers are for. (Yes organic farmers do till, but they also use manure, cover crops, and other methods to strengthen the soil)
My gardening philosophy has changed as I’ve matured as a gardener. When I began, besides vegetables, it was all about the bright ranks of hybrid annuals, exotic perennials and striving to make my yard look like one of those pictures in a magazine. When I heard statements by more experienced gardeners who said that eventually gardeners become more interested in foliage and habit than bright colors, I didn’t believe it. But it happened to me, especially as I learned more about the complexities of the eco-region in which I live. Beauty now wears a very different face for me than once it did.